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Wednesday, February 10, 2010  

Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out

There's been a flurry of stories and posts lately about the role President Obama's core team--Chicagoans Emanuel, Jarrett, and Axelrod, and campaign veteran Gibbs--has played in steering the administration into such a rough patch. Read them if you want. Some of this is predictable. Steve Clemons might laud the FT's reporter for bravery, but it always pays to dish dirt on a president's inner circle, at least once the bloom is off the rose and there are other important people waiting for a downfall. High-caliber cabinet picks from outside a president's coterie are often marginalized. Digby would have to start inventing people to have contempt for if she ever ran out of flesh-and-blood targets. The base is restive, the media establishment hasn't gotten any less stupid, the economy is terrible, and the president's agenda, for various reasons, has stalled out in Congress.

Now I share some of these critiques. The Cult of Rahm was always a confidence game. He tried to run away from our best issues in 2006 and still managed to win a majority. His over-the-top obnoxiousness can only be justified by results, and so far those have not been impressive enough.

I'm not a fan of the flaccid Gibbs, and the more time goes on, the less Axelrod looks like the winner-making genius than the winner-picking investor. Jarrett I hardly know anything about. However much blame they deserve for this or that setback, it's important to remember some of the big-picture factors. The economy is still terrible, and while they should have pushed (and might have gotten) a bigger stimulus, I doubt it could have been enough bigger to make a huge difference at this point. Obama should never have reappointed Bernanke and he should have pushed harder for mortgage cramdown authority.

Still, even if he had played all of these things perfectly, we'd still be in a bad state and his popularity would have suffered. If health care had passed the Senate one month earlier, the Massachusetts special election would have been a blow but not the disaster it was made out to be, and Democrats would already be back on the offensive by necessity. The White House team would look, if certainly not like geniuses, then like winners.

And all this without considering the procedural insanity of the Congress and the remarkably consistent obstructionism of the Republicans, over which the President has very little leverage.

It is very tempting to commute a major crisis into a smaller, more manageable problem. And unfortunately, a staff shake-up and a banishment of Rahm and Larry to the outer darkness will not push unemployment down to non-crisis levels, nor will it lead to reforming our health care system nor our sclerotic legislature. It would give Digby and the FDL bloggers new people to accuse of selling out, but in itself that's about all it can do.

The depth of the downturn perhaps should not have been a surprise to the administration and, as Atrios repeatedly points out, they should have had a plan B if their projections proved overly optimistic, as they did. But the unavoidable fact is that the downturn, which hurt the Republicans badly in 2008 has lingered long enough to torment the Democrats now. It doesn't matter that someone like Ross Douthat manages to acknowledge that the GOP has no seriousness about actually governing. Things are bad, they will be fairly or unfairly blamed on the party in power, and the opposition benefits. That our system prevents the majority party from governing is a profound flaw that few voters happen to understand. On the other hand, had the economy turned around earlier and more strongly, Republican obstructionism would have started breaking up by now. Few would even be pretending to care about the deficit. And no establishment knives would be out for the Four Horsepeople of the Chicagolypse.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:05 AM
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